Please forgive the length of this post. It seemed fitting to write this in my blog, since that’s what my paper was to be about…
I went to class Tuesday night. Tired from a long day at work. Annoyed that our class was back on. (It had previously been cancelled due to Nick taking a trip to Vegas to visit his dad.) Several of us huddled around his door for office hours, hoping to get some papers signed before class. The tone was grumpy and stressed. Typical of mid-semester. Especially the first semester of grad school.
We all kept looking down the hall to see if he was coming yet. Because surely he’d be around that corner any minute. Finally, we gave up, assuming he had forgotten about office hours and went downstairs to our classroom. 5 min passed….10, then 20. Most of us disgruntled, we finally decided to leave. Something in the back of my mind caused me to think something was wrong. Nick wouldn’t do that to us. I kept saying and thinking – I hope everything is okay. I thought maybe something had happened to his dad, or someone else. Maybe he got caught up in some emergency and didn’t have time to email us. I got home and emailed him with a short, “hope you’re okay, see you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow came and went… we still heard nothing. By class Wednesday night, we were all worried. No one had heard anything and there were cancellations on his classroom doors. I thought – okay maybe something happened to him. An accident or something. But hopefully he’ll be okay. Thursday came around and word spread like wildfire.
The world lost an amazing man on Monday evening. Dr. Nick Trujillo of 20+ years at Sac State passed away in his sleep. Heart attack they say. I still can’t believe it. I was the epitome of shock.
We had just seen him. He was too young.
It couldn’t be.
I had only known him a few months, so I think what is the hardest thing for me is all the time that I could have had with him. All of the time I lost.
All of the learning and mentoring that I missed out on.
I started graduate school practically on a whim. I was excited to get started, but I was scared to death. I was coming from creative writing. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t know the discipline, didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But the very first week of class Nick made me feel completely at ease. Completely “Okay, I can do this. This guy gets me.” He introduced me to this world of ethnography and autoethnography that I had never heard of. A world where creative writing meets communication and where the product is something so raw and so real. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was giddy. I would come home from his class excited and energized. After a 14-hour day, Nick got me energized. I felt like under his mentorship I could produce something great. Something beautiful.
A few weeks into class, I read an article that Nick co-wrote with several of his friends and colleagues, and his wife, as she was dying of cancer. The article is based in part on the book he co-authored with his wife, Leah called “Cancer and Death: A Love Story in Two Voices.” As I finished the article, I was sobbing at how sad it was. How I felt like I knew so much about this great teacher, writer and person just from reading one article. He wrote with such honesty. My husband came home saying “Jeez, why are you crying.” “Just read something really sad,” I sniffed.
The next week, I told Nick about it and told him that I felt like he got me, got where I was coming from and I shyly asked him to be the chair on my committee for my thesis. He agreed, and I was so excited for what I could learn from him. He was so encouraging to study what you want to study – get what you want to get out of your graduate program. Life is too short to not study something you are passionate about. To do something that makes you happy – he’d said. It was inspiring. I wish I’d told him more. Told him that I felt so happy to have found a mentor that would encourage me. Told him I admired his writing and his talent in music. His courage. He started playing the guitar after his wife’s death and his dad was also the great Bill Trujillo who played with Stan Kenton and many other jazz greats. Bill’s newest album came out just last week. It was produced by Nick.
Finding Nick felt like striking gold to me. Like it was meant to be. Fate. I know that sounds super lame and cliché. But that’s what it was. I grew up around jazz music too and this man seemed like the perfect combination of all the things I loved. I saw so much potential in the professional relationship we could form. The mentorship he would give.
For his class, at his suggestion I was working on reading Stacy Holman Jones’ thesis “Kaleidoscope Notes“ that included of ethnography and autoethnography. It was so different and real and easy to read. It again, felt like, okay, I can do this. Nick was the chair for her thesis. She teaches at CSU Northridge now, and I felt like while reading her thesis, I got a glimpse of what I could have had with Nick. What he could have given to me and so many other students.
It breaks my heart that Monday all of that potential disappeared.
It seems so very unfair that Nick was taken from us all so soon. Especially after his wife (another Sac State professor) died just 8 years ago. He had to get through her death and he had come out on the other side of it so much stronger and caring so much more about the important things, about living his life. His attitude came from only someone who watched their spouse pass away. In this clip about their book, Nick talks about how Leah’s death changed his attitude. And how she wanted to share her death experience to teach people about life. Nick said that he was kinder and more joyous. That he felt like he could handle anything – including his own death. That struck me hard. He also mentioned that Leah had said he was a young man with 30 good years – hopefully – left in him. He many not have had 30, but the ones that he did have held life and travel and fun. What a gift to be able to live so fully after the most awful thing that could happen has happened to you.
Leah wanted to teach people about life through her death, and maybe that was what Nick was meant to do for us. To teach us that life is precious. That everyday we have with someone is a gift. That you need to stop being afraid of telling people how much they mean to you. Because in a moment, they could be gone.
We could take a tragedy like this and be angry at the world for such a deep injustice. Or we could take it as a lesson to be kinder, to be more joyous, more patient in life. To live the life that Nick would have wanted.
It’s rare to find a teacher who inspires and cares so much, as Nick did, and I know I can speak for my entire cohort when I say we were privileged to have known him, to have learned from him as long as we did.
My favorite movie is It’s a Wonderful Life. If for some reason you don’t know the plot – with the help of Clarence the angel, George Bailey is given the chance to see what life was like without him. He’s able to see all of the people he touched. At one point Clarence says: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he? Don’t you see, George, you really had a wonderful life.”
Nick, you truly had a wonderful life, and I hope you can see how many of us you touched. I hope you are holding Leah’s hand.
We miss you.